TV: How Much Is Too Much?

The survey results from the Kaiser Family Foundation were released recently showing a disturbing trend in “screen time” for children. Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that all screen time be limited to just 1-2 hours per day, Nielsen data shows that children are spend approximately 3 hours per day watching television and a whopping 6.5 hours per day in front of all combined screens. This hasn’t changed much in the last few years; there seem to be new trends adding to the old.

Twenty percent of children, we have learned, have a television in their bedroom before the age of two years old! Why on earth would a one year old child need his own television? Experts agree that television is most beneficial if parents share the experience with their children. When you put a television in your child’s bedroom, you cut yourself out of the picture. The trend seems to be supported by parents who use the television as a means of getting their children to nap or to bed at night. Some parents don’t hook the child’s TV up to the cable system and only use it for DVD watching. Others with older kids use it for video games, only. I don’t think it is any less harmful, however, if the child watches the same video day in and day out. Arguably, it is worse! And video games, while they are fun and have some redeeming values, are still isolating and essentially mindless.

One of the most disturbing things about this new parenting trend is that parents are actually using the television as a parenting tool. The television is used as an educational aide, a reward incentive, a babysitter and the aforementioned calming device to transition kids to sleep. While some of these tools, used in moderation, are probably not harmful, some parents keep the television on all day, every day. It becomes “background noise”.

Here are a few tips and ideas to set limits your whole family can stick to:

  • If you use the television to transition your child to sleep, limit it to one half-hour children’s show or DVD, nothing longer. When the show is over, it is time for sleep.
  • If your older children are chronic television viewers, set a rule that they must have an idea of what they plan to watch before the television goes on. If your child has a favorite show that they know is on, let them watch it. If your child is just sitting down to watch TV out of boredom, without any idea of what is on or if your child is “channel-surfing”, they don’t need to be watching TV at all.
  • Get a DVR. Digital Video Recorders make it possible for both parents and children to pre-record quality television shows and watch them when it is convenient (after homework is finished, after the sun goes down, etc). Instead of television ruling our life, we can use the DVR to have control over our watching. We can fast forward through commercials and more closely monitor what our children are watching. It’s a great tool.
  • Consider setting limits to “screen time” which covers computers, handheld video games, televisions, DVDs, and television-connected video games. Many parents make the mistake of limiting each thing separately but this can still add up quickly to many hours a day. Let your child pick which screen they want to use but limit the overall time to just 1-2 hours per day.
  • Consider making screens off-limits during the work and school week. Our weeks are busy enough as it is without wasting away beautiful daylight hours in front of the screen. You can make exceptions for homework or a favorite show once-a week but you may notice your kids adjust to this extremely quickly.
  • Remove Televisions from children’s rooms. It is isolating. It is difficult to monitor what your children are watching. Make television-watching a family affair.
  • If your children are particularly hooked, create a reward system based on the lacking areas in your child’s life. If your child isn’t very physically active, offer to match any sustained physical activity with equal screen time. If your child hates to read, offer to match reading time with screen time.